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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown


The science of signs, verbal and nonverbal. According to Charles Sanders Peirce, signs may be iconic (that is, they bear a natural resemblance to what they signify), indexical (that is, they have a causal connection with what they signify), or symbolic (that is, they have a relationship with what they signify that is entirely arbitrary and conventional). The symbol is the sign proper. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, who uses the term "semiology" to describe his enterprise, a sign is composed of a signifier (an acoustic image) and a signified (a concept or meaning), the relationship between the two being arbitrary and conventional. Language is a system of differences without any positive terms.

Semiotics holds that all linguistic and social phenomena are texts, and the object is to reveal the underlying codes and conventions that make them meaningful. Claude Levi-Strauss applies semiotics to cultural anthropology; Jacques Lacan applies it to Freudian psychoanalysis; Michel Foucault, to the history of disease, insanity, and sexuality; and Roland Barthes, to fashion, photography, wrestling, food, and so on. (See also Linguistics and literary theory, Structuralism.)

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
Director: Ian Lancashire.
Last modified: March 31, 1997